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Higher Ground

By: Shelby C. Berry

Celebrating 25 years as a bluegrass band next year, Higher Ground Bluegrass is a group we rarely see in music today. Founded in 1998 by banjo and guitar player Duke Wellington, Higher Ground Bluegrass established itself as a premier bluegrass band in New Mexico, a significant challenge since New Mexico is not known for its bluegrass community. Although the band members came and went over the years, the integrity, sound, and mission of Higher Ground Bluegrass never changed. 


"Since the band got together almost 25 years ago, we have found that some parts work better than others," Wellington said. "Everyone knows their role in the band and each song. We know how to communicate non-verbally to present a song in the best way possible."


The founding band members remained together for only one year, with band member Ron Lujan passing away unexpectedly in the fall of 1999. With that, Wellington wrote a spiritual tribute to Ron titled "Higher Ground" (a nod to their band name), which was released on their first album, Black and White - Faded and Torn, in 2001. Their music included a combination of traditional, authentic, and progressive styles of bluegrass—something they pride themselves in and still embody today while also building upon that sound.


Today, Higher Ground Bluegrass performs original material penned by members of the group that are both traditional and contemporary, inspired by folk, bluegrass, Celtic, country, and even rock n roll music. Their main priority in creating new material is adding something new and dynamic to what would typically be a traditional sound, making it their own. 


Alongside founder Duke Wellington, current band members include Dave Devlin on mandolin and resophonic guitar, Fred Bolton on guitar, Pat Mahoney on fiddle, and Laura Leach-Devlin on bass. Today's band members have been together since 2010, with the addition of Mahoney on fiddle after the band had been without a fiddle player for years.


"When I first came in, they had an established band," Mahoney said. "I moved from California,where I was playing with three bands at the time and in the California Bluegrass Association. Little did I know in moving to New Mexico, I'd still get to play with some talented folks. Duke and I have collaborated and written songs that have become very successful. We are truly a family that happens to play together. We've enjoyed it and plan on many more years."


Coming from northern California, Mahoney said it seemed like everyone was into the classic bluegrass sound. "There wasn't a lot of progressive bluegrass sound when I was growing up. Now that I'm older, I think we are lucky that our taste has evolved. Bluegrass isn't a narrow genre of music anymore. It incorporates everything. If we hear a song that sounds fun, we will pick it up and put our twist on it."


Higher Ground Bluegrass prides itself in offering its interpretation of bluegrass music, extending boundaries into other genres. This different take on their music made them stand out and created a name in bluegrass in a state where bluegrass is not highly popular music.


"New Mexico is not what you would call full of bluegrass bands," Wellington said. "Bluegrass is huge in Colorado, just north of us, but some established bands in the state have been around for quite a few years. The opportunities have evolved over the years, from bar gigs to festivals. Bluegrass is well-received here, but it's not massive like on the East Coast."


"In New Mexico, it's harder to find where to jam than it was when I was in California, but once you get in the circle, it's a bit easier," Mahoney said. "It's about knowing who to talk to to get your foot in the door."


While more progressive, they prefer a traditional bluegrass performance on stage, sharing one microphone. "It's more of a show where you get the opportunity to move around like in other genres of music," Mahoney said. "It brings more movement where it's more stimulating for the audience. We are smiling and can't help but grin the whole time. We always say the worst day playing music is better than the best day at work."


With eight independent albums under its belt and the most recent album, Auburn Sky,nominated for five New Mexico Music Awards, Higher Ground Bluegrass serves as the host band for the Southwest Pickers Annual Bluegrass and Traditional Music Festival and opens for bluegrass icons like Peter Rowan, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and The Infamous Stringdusters.


"The Southwest Pickers Annual Bluegrass and Traditional Music Festival has been a big supporter of Higher Ground Bluegrass since the beginning. In 2016, we were asked to be the host band to help with the execution and become the resource for new bands. Our involvement has been more from an execution standpoint—donating our time and fundraising to help them bring in big national acts," said Wellington. "It's been so rewarding because people are so approachable in this genre of music. That's what is so special about bluegrass music," he continued.


"If you hear our music, you get a good feel of who we are as people," Mahoney said. "We take a lot from life experiences, and you feel that in what we write. You get a good feel of who we are as musicians and people. We like to brainstorm the personal side and bring it out in our music, so other people relate to it and feel like you've written a song just for them. That's what I enjoy about the writing side, but it takes time to learn how to do it."


While Higher Ground has had incredible success together as a band, they pride themselves on their original music. "Our upcoming album will be for our 25th anniversary, and it will be all original songs," said Wellington. "We have gotten even better as songwriters and at relying on each member to bring their special talent to the song. Pat and I spent a lot of time arranging these songs to maintain the impact we want them to have."


In closing, Mahoney and Wellington reflect on their time together in Higher Ground Bluegrass.


"For the band, we will keep writing and enjoy performing," said Mahoney. "What we are doing now is what we hope to keep doing for decades."


"We are a family, and that's demonstrated by how long we've been together as a band. We genuinely enjoy each other's company," Wellington said.


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